Thursday, 30 August 2007

What's in a name?

While enduring numerous layovers at airports a few weeks ago, I entertained myself in the bookstores. I found a book called "Freakonomics" in Manchester and began to read a chapter on the economics of first names. I continued to read this in Newark and Houston. (I didn't buy it because I was already carrying two volumes of Harry Potter). I found it fascinating for all sorts of reasons but mostly because some of the top boy and girl names for low-income families feature in my family.
We have a Ricky (no.1 for boys in white low-income families). We have an Amber (very bad girl, she is) and a Brittani (she of the alcoholic, drug-addicted mother and daughter of Ricky). We have a Meaghan (with another alcoholic, drug-addicted mother). What we don't have are any of the top boy and girl names for high-income families. And you know what? I'm glad because those names suck bigtime.
I don't know if the Brittani and Meaghan in our family, who are still children, will break out of the low-income stigma attached to their names. I hope so because those children actually have had to put up with a lot because of their parents' various addictions. They are in better places now with other family members who care for them.
But back to the names. "Freakonomics" maintains that you can also tell a person's race by their name. But I think that only works in America. Certain names in the US that might be used by one race are used by another in the UK, I've found. Also, you can probably tell the age of the parents and who is a pop idol at the time of a child's birth. You don't meet any 4-year-old Mildreds, do you. Yet some old-fashioned names are making a comeback. Ruby, for instance. My name, so unique when I was growing up, is now a top girl name for low-income families in the UK. So what does that tell you?
While visiting the Little Bighorn Memorial, I was particularly interested in some of the Indian names: Bad Fair Hair, Bloody Knife, Crazy Horse, Lame White Man, Dog's Back Bone, Two Moons, and Noisy Walking, to name a few. So descriptive and evocative. Would Sitting Bull have had a different life as Noisy Walking, or vice-versa?
You can probably tell more about a person's parents from a name than about that person. The "Freakonomics" author gave one example of not judging a book by its cover. He wrote about two men, one from an upper-middle-class background where education was revered, the other from a low-income family in Los Angeles. One became a celebrated author and professor. The other became the Unabomber. Guess which one.


Lizzie said...

Oh crikey Wakeup! Don't know where the devil this news may leave me. My own 3 daughters' names are, respectively from oldest to youngest, Vanessa, Penelope and Anastasia. Erm..
(Mind you, the last 2 are known as Penny and Ana, if that helps.) Any comments??

Lizzie x

laurie said...

the freakanomics book was a huge hit over here. (i haven't read it.) and now the author writes a column in the new york times magazine (i don't read it. i don't read anything that was the suffix -onimics).

but sometimes you do wonder what people are doing, saddling their kids with names that are spelled totally wrong, or are clearly made up....

a guy was arrested here last week for murder. his first name? Rage. RAGE.

what did they expect???

Kaycie said...

I went to school with a boy whose last name was Phillips. What do you think his parents named him? Philip. What in the world were they thinking? The poor man goes through life with the name Philip Phillips. Couldn't they have at least spelled them the same?!?

Pixie said...

My name was given to me before it's time, so people think i'm younger than I am cause of it.
Oh and of course the copious amounts of face cream i slap on!

laurie said...

i worked with a guy named Rand Miranda.
that always seemed redundant, too.

DJ Kirkby said...

Erm, N3S is quite unusual but N1 and N2 are plain boring run of the mill names. I refuse to look any of them up in that book!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Lizzie: Relax. I don't recall seeing those names. Except Anastasia might have been on the white girl high income list (but it had names like Ardis). My kids' names weren't on it either.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Laurie: You've got a point about the onomics. Rage? Rand Miranda? One shows a bit of clairvoyance, the other a lack of imagination.

Kaycie: Ditto on the Philip Phillips. No imagination. I remember many years ago when I worked in the credit and collections department of a hospital seeing the name Frosty Burr. Now that's funny.

Pixie: Remember, you're as young as the man you feel.

DJ: None of the research in that book applies to the UK, I've concluded. Different cultures. So don't worry about the names and just enjoy your sons.

Anonymous said...

I like reading those silly little tacky souvenirs that tell you what you're supposed to be like by the name you have been given. They're all different! My family have relatively ordinary names. How boring!

Crystal xx

laurie said...

ok we have a lot to talk about. you worked for knightridder??? so did i. so did my husband.

email me! i need to know more!

Snuffleupagus said...

I LOVED that book. Great stuff. True about the race and name points too in England sometimes.'Leroy' - you don't just know he will be black, but at school, you also know he is going to be a nightmare kid. I have never known a good one. So when your daughter brings home a 'Leroy', beware! ha ha.

If you liked F, you will like Malcolm Gladwell - Tipping Point and Blink. He is fabuloso!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

CJ: The names may be boring, but I bet the people are not.

laurie, I will email you. It was a long time ago, though.

Snuffy: I just knew you as a teacher would have some input. I bet all teachers have some names they dread.

Exmoorjane said...

Ha! This makes me laugh... We thought long and hard about our son's name - given he had to grow up in a small rural community it seemed only fair to give him a deeply safe banal name.
but I confess (and how batty is this?) that I did check with a numerology/astrology/nameolody (OK, I made the last one up) bod about what would be a good name depending on when he was born. Trouble was, he was so overdue that the poor man got fed up giving me updates so in the end we just took a wild swing and hoped it would be OK. Time will tell but he hasn't been duffed up yet.
Oh, see you know @themill too- another lovely blogger I've met!

The Rotten Correspondent said...

It's so funny with names how much they give away. A lot of times you can guess pretty well how old someone is just by their name. But this whole business of your name changing the entire course of your life? I don't buy it.

Although I do get a little impatient with some of the crazy names out there with the deliberately wild spellings. Really. Do you really need 17 letters to spell "Ann"?

laurie said...

my friend named her son Cyrus Levon. the joke was that he'd get a football scholarship based on his name alone. (he's white, and not a footballer.)

names don't determine your future. but sometimes they determine how people are going to view you, at least until they get to know you.

ps i'm with snuffly on Malcolm Gladwell. i heard him speak at harvard a few years ago and i would have listened as long as he wanted to talk.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Welcome, exmoorjane. I hope your son's name does him proud in the future. Hopefully it's not Samuel. There are 5 in my son's form next year.

RC: How would you spell Ann with 17 letters? AAAaaaNNNNNNNnnnn?

laurie: Didn't Elton John have song called Levon? The only Cyrus I can think of was Cyrus T. Vance, and I wouldn't name anybody after him.

Exmoorjane said...

God's children, us Capricorns!

debio said...

Great blog, wuastc.

Is it not the height of self-indulgence to name a child so that they stand out from the crowd from day 1?

We are able to jettison many things as we grow up but, unless we take radical action, are saddled with a name forever.

Queen Vixen said...

That was funny and really interesting. I need to know what those higher income names that sucked were - curiosity got the better of me. I love my name, its rather regal although no queen to my knowledge was ever named thus - I am also aware that if you change the end letter of my name it is totally different and annoys the hell out of me when people get it wrong. Names are important!

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

Debio: I suppose it is self-indulgent to give your child a name unlike any other. On the other hand, is that not better than being one of 10 Samuels or 12 Hannahs?

QV: One name I recall for the girls is Ardis. I have never met an Ardis. I agree. Names are important.